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Thursday, 14 May 1942

Senator KEANE (Victoria) (Minister for Trade and Customs) . - I move -

That the bill be now read a secondtime.

During the debate on the Invalid and Old-age Pensions Bill last year, I announced the Government's intention to increase the maximum rate of invalid and old-age pensions to £15s. a week. The principal object of th is measure is to honour that undertaking. At the same time the Government is taking this opportunity to introduce additional benefits and to effect amendments which more recent experience in dealing with the Invalid and Old-age Pensions Act has proved to be desirable. These amendments are designed to eliminate administrative difficulties. I assure the Senate that they do not remove, or reduce, benefits now enjoyed by pensioners.

Honorable senators will have an opportunity in committee to discuss the provisions thoroughly, and, where necessary, full explanations of each clause will be made. At this juncture I shall make clear the Government's policy towards social services, and refer very briefly to the attitude being displayed towards this important subject in other parts of the world. Honorable senators who have studied the interim reports of the Joint Committee on Social Securitywill be familiar with that committee's recommendations for comprehensive improvements in our social legislation. Prior to my assumption of ministerial 'office, I acted as deputy chairman of that committee and had the privilege of presiding at many of its meetings, not only when evidence was submitted but. also at the subsequent deliberations of the committee. The members of that committee, who were representative of all parties in the Parliament, were so impressed by the statements of sociologists, economists, social workers, employers and employees' organizations, and others, that we had no hesitation in presenting a. report advocating a liberalization of the existing system, and suggesting its extension to additional classes.

Some people believe that the demands of our war effort preclude any endeavour to improve the social and living conditions of the community. It is, of course not possible to do as much in this direction during the war as in a time of peace and prosperity ; but it is essential in time of national peril to do what common sense dictates to be necessary to sustain the whole nation on a war footing and maintain national morale at the highest possible pitch. This cannot be done if, in our midst, we have too much poverty, and too many people living in unhealthy and insanitary dwellings which are ideal breeding grounds of disease, and cause absences from work as well as distress. Great Britain, Canada and New Zealand

Iiia ve recognized the wisdom of raising the standard of living, and, to use words of the English economist Mr. John Maynard Keynes, to reap the immense advantages in morale of a plan conceived " in a spirit of social justice, a plan which use3 a time of general sacrifice, not as an excuse for postponing desirable reforms, but as an opportunity for moving further than we have moved hitherto towards reducing inequalities ". In pursuance of that policy Great Brimin has recently extended its social services, added considerably to the cost of pensions, raised the insurable limit in the unemployment insurance scheme providing for some additional 500,000 insured persons, increased the weekly rate of sick benefit and in other ways taken steps to ensure that the standard of living is at least maintained. New Zealand has liberalized its Social Security Act. It has passed a Rural Housing Act, widened the scope of child allowances, liberalized maternity benefits, and introduced a scheme providing joint medical and pharmaceutical services. In Canada the Unemployment and Agricultural Assistance Act has extended previous benefits, whilst in 1940 a comprehensive dominionwidescheme of unemployment insurance was introduced, and in February of this year a bill was introduced to provide a national health insurance scheme.

It is interesting to note also that the International Labour Conference held in New York last year was unanimously of opinion that the social conditions of the whole of the people should be improved however, and whenever, possible. To this policy which is being pursued by other countries, the Government subscribes whole-heartedly, and believes that in raising the standard of living, and seeing that, as far as possible, social security is assured, the nation's war effort is being fostered. This view. I know, is held by those with whom I had the privilege of serving on the Joint Committee on Social Security. It gives me great pleasure to announce to the Senate that the Government hopes to present, at no distant date, a Social Security Act consolidating the whole of the present social legislation of the Commonwealth, and providing further extensions. It is with equal pleasure, and with no


small degree of pride, that I contemplate the fact that shortly after it has assumed office the Government has not only strengthened the nation's preparedness for war but has also improved the living conditions of a very large proportion of the Australian people. The foregoing remarks apply with equal force to other social legislation bills which I shall present almost immediately to the Senate.

I come now to' the more important features of this measure. The extension of the war to our own shores prevented the Government from bringing down this legislation earlier this year; but in order that pensioners may receive the full benefit of the Government's original intention, provision is made for the operation of the new maximum rate of pension as from the 2nd April, 1942, when the last cost of living adjustment became effective. The first payment at the increased rate of 25s. a week will be made on the 9 th July next, when eligible pensioners will be paid arrears at the rate of ls. a week as from the 2nd April last. The principle of associating the maximum rate of invalid and old-age pensions with the cost of living index figure has been retained; but an important amendment ensures that in the event of a fall in the cost of living, that rate cannot be reduced below 25s. per week without parliamentary approval. The new maximum rate of 25s. per week has been related to the figure 1053, which was the price index number for all items in " C " series, for the quarter ended the 31st March last, and it has been arranged that this maximum will be increased by 6d. per week for every 21 units by which the price index number exceeds 1053.

One noteworthy provision is the Government's decision to liberalize conditions under which pensions are paid to blind persons, who at present may have an income of £3 7s. 6d. per week without affecting the pension rate. The amendment now proposed will raise the permissible income for a blind person to the level of the federal basic wage as adjusted from time to time, the amount at present being £4 10s. a week. Where a husband and wife are both blind they will be permitted to have a joint income equal to the federal basic wage, and each to receive ia maximum pension. No altera- ir-ion has been made to. the permissible income for pensioners other than blind persons. .Concerning pensioners who are inmates of benevolent .asylums the Government proposes to follow established custom and give them one-half of .the increase of ls. per week, which, as from the .2nd April last, will raise the amount of the institutional pension from 8s.. ,to fs. 6d. per week. The balance, being ;i maximum of 16s. 6d. a week, will l>e paid to the institutions towards the cost of maintaining the pensioners. An amendment to which I the special Attention of honorable senators will eliminate what are commonly known as the *' Hospital " provisions of the act. At present, when a pensioner becomes an inmate of a hospital, 'his pension is automatically suspended. If he is an inmate t'or less than four weeks he receives the whole of the suspended pension on his discharge, but if he remains for more than four weeks he receives on discharge au .amount equal to four weeks full pension. During the period in excess of four weeks in hospital he receives a " Hospital " pension, the present rate being '8s. per week. It is now proposed to amend section 45 of the act to provide that pensions -will not be reduced consequent upon admission to a hospital ; whatever rate the pensioner was receiving upon admission will be maintained throughout his stay in the institution unless his circumstances alter materially during this period. The Government considers that there will be general agreement with this course of action, because the position in respect of hospitals has altered considerably since the passing of the principal Invalid and Old-age Pensions Act. Intermediate wards have been added to many hospitals, and because they form a part of an institution, the pension is now suspended when a pensioner enters such a ward, even though he or his relatives may be making a substantial contribution towards the cost of his treatment and maintenance. In addition, there has been a considerable growth of hospital contributory schemes by which persons are entitled to free treatment for a period of about twelve weeks in return for small weekly payments. In such cases it is unfair to pay a portion of -the pen sion money to the .hospital, -and, with the consent ,and co-operation of the authorities '.controlling , these schemes, it has usually been possible to arrive ,at a fair adjustment. This, however, has really been .a circumvention of the provisions of the act, .and it is undesirable to continue such a procedure. It is estimated thoi about 70 per cen-t. of pensioners remain legs -than four weeks in hospital, and .consequently they receive payment of pension in full for the whole of thenstay, the hospital receiving no payment whatever from the 'Commonwealth on their account. The repeal of the " Hospital " provision will eliminate a considerable amount of work in regard to admissions and discharges and in adjusting pension payments. It should ako result in a reduction of work in post offices and in hospitals. At a lime when the man-power problem is as acute as it is at present, this aspect is of considerable importance to the whole community. Many of the hospitals concerned, hundreds of individuals and some organizations representing pensioners have asked the Government to take the action that is now proposed. Some of the larger hospitals may fear that they will lose some of their regular revenue, but it is considered that eventually there will be m» material reduction because those controlling the institutions may negotiate direct with those pensioners whose circumstances permit of a reasonable payment for maintenance in respect of the whole period of their stay in hospital. Th" provisions of section 45 of the act regarding pensioners admitted to asylums for the insane will remain unchanged, but. the more appropriate term " Hospital for the Insane " has .been inserted, thus following legislation in other parts of the Commonwealth. In these particular cases, no pension is payable during the period in which a pensioner is an inmate of such an institution, but upon discharge he may receive not more than four week? full pension.

A feature of this bill, which will make a strong appeal to, and receive the warm support of, every honorable senator, and of social workers and humanitarians throughout the country, is the decision to extend benefits to aboriginal natives of

Australia who are living under .civilized conditions, and whose character and intelligence qualify them to receive pensions. For the first time in the history of the Commonwealth, a pension is proposed for aborigines, and it is hoped this provision will bring some measure of happiness to the original owners of this country. The Government is well aware of the difficulties that will be imposed on the administration by the introduction of this new benefit, and it prefers to hasten slowly. All who have any knowledge of this problem realize the futility of paying money to aborigines in certain circumstances, but there will be general agreement with a plan which provides aid for those aborigines who prove that they can put the pension to good use. Where an aborigine, by reason of his intelligence and development, is exempt from the operation of the laws of the State relating to the control of aborigines, he will be eligible for pension, subject to the same means te3t as other persons. Such exemptions are at present provided for under the laws of South Australia and Western Australia. So far as aborigines from other States are concerned, it is intended that the Commissioner shall exercise his discretion as to the desirability of granting a pension, and in doing so he will have regard to the same standard of character, intelligence and development as is applied in those States where certificates of exemption are in force. It has been considered desirable to specially authorize the Commissioner to pay less i ban the maximum rate in those cases where it is appropriate to do so, and he will also be given power to direct that payment of a pension be made to a suitable authority or person for the benefit of pensioners. The Government is under no illusion about the difficulty of administering this clause in a manner calculated to confer benefits as and where the legislature intends, and for that reason it considers that only a fairly narrow provision is justified at present. During the debate on an earlier amending pensions bill, a strong plea was made by certain honorable senators on behalf of those Pacific Islanders known as " kanakas ". After reviewing the special circumstances surrounding these cases, the Government has included them for benefits under this bill. There are not. very many of them. They are all of great age, and their numbers are rapidly diminishing, and it is hoped that the concession by the Government will bring them some comfort and happiness in the eventide of life. The only other amendment of note contained in the bill will repeal the provision in the act under which claimants for old-age pensions are disqualified if they are adequately maintained by their relatives. This restriction was introduced by the financial emergency legislation some time ago. It is really a dead letter and has not been acted upon.

A similar provision relating to the grant of invalid pensions is being liberalized and modified to the degree that the only relatives whose maintenance of the claimant for pension will be taken into account will be the parents. In future, therefore, contributions by children will not in any way affect the eligibility of claimants for either invalid or old-age pensions. The total cost of new benefits provided in this bill will be approximately £925,000 per annum. In February, 1940, Sir john Simon speaking on the Old-age and Widows' Pensions Bill in the House of Commons, said : - " It would be a wonderful thing in the records of thi? House that during our fight for freedom and liberty abroad we had not forgotten ibo needs of the old folk at home". I. commend the bill to the earnest considerate n of honorable senators.

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